Air Force’s Fill-In Falcons put a strain on someone other than New Mexico in a blowout victory late Friday night.
“The person that had the most difficult job tonight was Jim Arthur,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said, referring to his team’s radio play-by-play announcer. “There were some new jersey numbers at more than a few spots.”
The one number that didn’t change was the zero next to New Mexico in a 28-0 shutout for the Falcons.
Freshman Jayden Goodwin was informed the morning of the game that he’d be making his first start on defense. He joined inside linebacker Johnathan Youngblood as freshmen starters. Outside linebacker Caleb Humphrey made his first start, as did nose guard Kalawai’a Pescaia.
And then some of the biggest plays of the night came from defensive tackle George Silvanic, who was an offensive lineman though August. And inside linebacker Noah Bush, who hadn’t played since Oct. 3. And Brandon Gooding, a junior outside linebacker who entered the game with three career tackles to his credit.
The group was forced to, on three consecutive occasions, defend a short field after Air Force fumbles. New Mexico (0-4, 0-4 Mountain West) took over at the Air Force 34 and moved backward 10 yards before missing a field goal. It took over at the AFA 20, found itself at that exact spot several plays later and missed another field goal. It then took the field again, this time at the Falcons’ 23, moved backward 5 yards and misfired on another field goal.
“That’s just an impressive, when it comes to that aspect of the game, as I’d think you’d ever see in a contest,” Calhoun said. “But I hope we don’t have to see that again.
“It’s a situational aspect of football — sudden change. I think everybody tries to create that during practices. A good bit of that is attitude, right from the get-go to say, ‘What an opportunity,’ even though your backs are pinned against the wall.”
That’s the position Air Force’s defense has faced since the Mountain West announced a season would take place this fall. At least 10 of the 11 players projected to be starters had already opted to leave for the semester when the conference initially postponed the season until the fall. Suddenly, the defense had to lean on guys who weren’t expected to contribute this year, and in the case of players like Silvanic, not at all on that side of the ball.
“I think it really speaks to all the guys on the defense playing hard,” Silvanic said of those sudden-change spots. “We didn’t give up, we didn’t settle. We just kept playing hard every down and it helped with the shutout.”
It had been nine years since Air Force (2-2, 1-2) shut out a conference opponent, and it did it Friday against a Lobos team that, while winless, had scored 53 combined points in the previous two weeks in one-possession losses against Hawaii and Nevada, who entered this weekend with a combined record of 6-2.
The Falcons held Navy in check in a 40-7 win in the opener, then shut out San Jose State in the first half of a 17-6 loss. The lone off game came in a 49-30 loss to a Boise State team that has scored 40-plus points in all three of its Mountain West games.
Aiding the Air Force defense was an offense that averaged more than five minutes on its first three touchdown-scoring drives, staking the team to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and contributing to a 13-minute advantage in time of possession.
The offense didn’t take the same sort of numbers hit as the defense from players leaving, but it has dealt with injuries and COVID-related absences. On Friday it was without starting tailback Kadin Rembserg and fullback Timothy Jackson, yet it rumbled for 356 rushing yards while completing 4 of 5 passes for 66 yards.
A big part of that success can be traced to an offensive line that hadn’t been fully intact since the blowout victory over Navy.
“We finally had everyone on the o-line back in full strength, and it was good to show what we know we can do,” preseason All-American left guard Nolan Laufenberg said. “It felt like we were bulling them a little bit, and it was good to feel like that.”
Asked to elaborate on what “bulling” means, Laufenberg added, “Just being physical and kind of kicking butt is what it felt like.”
That offense line, many of whom played on last year’s 11-2 team that finished ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press, was familiar with that feeling. Now the Fill-Ins have felt it, too.